Play this song:
For most foreigners to Bulgaria and the Balkans, their first introduction to Zurni is very much similar to what you are experiencing now--unexpectedly. The music is somewhat abrasive and you've probably turned the volume down slightly . . .
Most foreigners are introduced to zurni by happening upon a wedding procession or during festivals. In person, the zurni penetrates through your whole body and deafens the ears. Its music for dancing, varying between traditional Bulgarian folklore dances or Roma Kuchek (or in some people's eyes Turkish belly dancing). It guides the dancers in celebration and is simplistic and without lyrics.
Zurni is comprised of, in its simplest of forms, a Tupan (the drum), and an ensemble of clarinet/oboe like instruments called Zurni.
The drum is played on both sides at the same time, one side with a small stick that acts a snare and the other side with a large bass inducing stick (pictured here).
This is the high pitched zurna that creates the melody. It is muted (see the chain in at the horn) and its a reed blown instrument. The player usually moves continuously with his ever-changing notes becoming part actor, part musician.
The other essential zurna is pitched much lower and plays one or two notes creating a non-stop low hum/buzz that harmonizes the higher Zurna.
Traditionally, zurni is used (probably because of its unbelievable loudness) as a way of announcing publicly a procession of some sort. This ranges from high school graduates marching through the town square to weddings as the bride and groom approach the church/municipal building. I've actually seen zurni work as a way to gather people to public event, in this particular case it was a graduation party. Everyone waited for the zurni to come by their house and they joined the entourage as it passed with everyone finishing at the banquet hall. Obviously, in larger towns this practice of zurni being a klaxon (if you will) is tapering off. But deep rooted tradition still remains.
Zurni has a marred and complicated history like a lot of music in the Balkans. It has historical traces back to the Ottoman Empire or as the Bulgarians say it, the "Turkish Yoke" as the part of the Turkish Military Bands. The word and instrument "zurna" is actually a Turkish one. Historically, the military of the Ottoman Empire were Janissaries, local conscripts from the native peoples has played Zurna music as a military processional music [Recommended Link: Janissary Music "Mehter"] In the past, whole marching bands would be playing similar music that would announce their arrival as the marched. Imagine, for a moment, 50 uniformed Janissaries all playing in time in an ear-obliterating unison. Some even claim zurna or Janissary March Music is the origination of military marching music (food for thought, I'm not ready to fully research the history of military marching bands)
The Balkans, since the removal of the Ottoman Empire, has spent a hundred years rewriting history to accommodate for the newly formed political countries; what is "Bulgarian", what is "Macedonian"and how each country has a different cultural identity than the other (because if it were the same culture, then why not the same country?). In this process of historical revival of old states, zurni was considered Turkish by the Bulgarian revisionist historians. Especially during communist times in Bulgaria, Zurni was outlawed and looked as a cultural invasion from Turkey. Somewhat understandable if it was the music used by the Ottomans while fighting the revolutionaries.
As is a common theme throughout the Balkans, the Roma in Bulgaria didn't listen to the new Great Historians and the Communist Party. They continued with their lives by ignoring the current authorities in power because playing zurni was a form of livelihood. The Roma in Bulgaria have traditionally kept the zurni tradition alive because the Bulgarian community desires it for the weddings, processions and festivals. This is just one example of the soft contradictions that happen in the Balkans. Now in the Balkans, especially in Bulgaria and Macedonia, there is a intrinsic tradition for using this old Turkish military music (distorted over hundreds of years) played by Roma musicians for Bulgarians/Macedonians. Zurni isn't Roma music, just like rap isn't black music. But is just seems that the irrevocably tied to each other.
Zurni is in the Balkans. People in the Balkans play it and love it. So, is it Balkan music? I mean, people in the Balkans like death metal but does that make death metal Balkan music? In my very unscientific method, I would have to say yes because of the proliferation throughout the region and its use during public and official cultural events (weddings, festivals, celebrations). It's historically Turkish music but so are a lot of other things in the Balkans. A 500 year imprint by the Ottomans has added to the Balkan landscape and now parts of the Ottoman Empire are part of the general culture.
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